The Mountain Path: Paul Pritchard. Vertebrate Publishing £24.
pages hard back, case bound with 8 page art paper colour section.
‘Live it up, fill your cup and be merry, sow your wild oats whilst you may, for the toothless types of tomorrow, they were the tigers just yesterday!’
This is the most unusual mountaineering book I have ever read, a combination of the philosophy of risk, the psychology of why we climb, and how it may unexpectedly change our whole being. I should have been warned as to what was included by Hazel Findlay’s outstanding introduction in the foreword; a committed climber she confessed that most climbing books she finds rather boring, too full of machismo but not in the writings of Paul Pritchard!
In the style of Dylan Thomas, let us begin at the beginning. Paul grew up rather hedonistically on the moors of Lancashire, favourite occupations were setting fire to them, spitting competitions and cutting school, but a master at the latter introduced him to the life affirming activity of rock climbing in the local quarries of Wilton at the age of 16 and he was hooked. From then on climbing was to dominate his life. I know from personal experience what a vibrant climbing scene there was at that time in the rather low key climbing environment of those quarries; Anglezarke, Houghton, the various Wilton ones and that boulder-freakies delight, Brownstones and Paul quickly became one of leading pioneers of the area.
In 1986 Paul moved to Llanberis, to what was to be one of the most innovative scenes of British climbing history, with totally committing new routes on the sea cliffs of Gogarth and desperately run out climbs in the Llanberis slate quarries. There was besides the climbing scene the wild partying and this unfortunately led some of its participants to the dead end of drug use and a promising climbing career snuffed out, but fortunately Pritchard was not to be one of these! It was the time of the Thatcher revolution, the rundown of heavy industry and the coal mines, leading on to mass unemployment but Paul, who had sacrificed a joinery apprenticeship happily became a full time climber.....on the dole. Going climbing every day the standards of these dole boys went through the roof and I recall giving a lecture in Sweden at that time, being asked at its end ‘as to why there were so many hard free rock climbs in the UK?’, and the reply was ‘we have to thank Mrs Thatcher for this!’ which rather confused the questionnaire by this answer.
Climbing the Rainbow Slab once again for the film 'To the Rainbow'. Image Bamboo-Chicken Productions
Paul was to experience the first of his brushes with death at this time whilst repeating a route on the back wall of the Wen Zawn at Gogarth. When he reached what he expected to be the crux, it was seeping water, but he was not too worried for he believed he had good protection below him. The inevitable happened and he slipped off, but to his surprise the wired nut just below him broke and this led onto a chain reaction and his whole line of pro followed suit and he landed in the sea. The fall had rendered him unconscious, and he was under water for many minutes before his partner, the Australian climber and photographer, Glenn Robbins managed to climb down, fish him out and pull him onto a ledge above the high tide mark. Glenn then gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation and Pritchard came back from the dead, but remained injured by the fall. Robbins then tried to climb out but failed and things were looking serious when another climber appeared at the lip of the Zawn, who was alerted to Paul’s predicament, and a rescue helicopter was eventually summoned and the injured climber ensconced in Bangor’s accident and emergency. But you cannot keep a man like Pritchard off the rock/mountain for long.
A few years later Paul was winter climbing on Creag Meagaidh, via its route the Centre Post Direct, when he came upon a section of egg shell ice, a frozen exterior but soft snow underneath. This is a rare occurrence in Scotland but it happens, and inevitably in trying to climb this he was in difficulty and was sinking up to his arm pits, breaking through the surface ice into the powder snow beneath. He tried to retreat, to descend the steep ice below him but the inevitable happened and he took a monster 50 metre fall, severely injuring his back. Fortunately a fellow guide was on the mountain that day, Nick Kekus who took over and arranged a lower to the valley floor and the eventual arrival of the Lochaber Rescue team in their shiny, yellow helicopter which deposited him in Fort William Hospital. Besides his back injuries the ice hammer he was carrying hit him in the face as he was falling, injuring an eye and making his face look like he had tussled with the Terminator. You would think after such a close call that Pritchard would seek some solace on a couch and watching TV, but that was not for him. The mountains called and he was off to Patagonia, the Himalaya and still wending his way up extreme rock climbs. But this was all to change at his third near death experience on Tasmania’s Totem Pole, but that was in the future.
Paul had begun to write about his climbs and journeys, and from the first the articles he produced received wide acclaim. In 1997 a collection of his writings ‘Deep Play’ won the Boardman/Tasker prize and though this was so richly deserved, set in motion the most challenging of Paul’s mishaps whilst climbing. Along with Celia Bull he used his prize money to fund a world tour of climbing and in 1998 arrived on the Isle of Tasmania with an ascent of its Totem Pole as their objective. This incredibly thin sea stack looking almost as if a strong wind would blow it over, poses a challenge that Celia and Paul could not resist. What happened that day in 1998 was fully described in Pritchard’s second 1999 Boardman/Tasker prize winning book ‘Totem Pole’, and the Mountain Path informs and educates us that though this left him hemiplegic, he has somehow crafted a life of adventuring and doing, albeit of a different style and objective but none the less worthy. In fact he writes in his latest book that his life, enhanced and enlarged spiritually by the experience of this tryst with the grim reaper.
In, what was to be his closest call!
After a long period of rehabilitation in the UK, learning to deal with his inevitable reduced physical ability, he returned to Australia, to Hobart in Tasmania where he now resides, having married and become a family man; but the spirit of enquiry, and wide reading on every subject from psychology to philosophy, to which the pages of Mountain Path strewn with observation and thought pay tribute. This I can sympathise with, recovering from a Stroke and a serious infection I have found one lives in thought and mind rather than in physical roustabout, and it is not surprising that Paul became enamoured of this, especially whilst practising meditation, Vipassana, originally also by the Buddha.
A chapter I found so interesting because of personal experience was ‘Pilgrimage’. This describes first the train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa, then Paul and friend’s challenging journey by tricycle beginning in that City to the Mount Everest Base Camp, then on to Kathmandu. Whilst lecturing at Sichuan Da Xue (University) in Chengdu, we had relations with the Tibetan Da Xue in Lhasa and thus I was able to visit Xizang (Tibet) without the usual difficulty surrounding permits etc. I was one of the first to ride on the train which runs from Chengdu to Lhasa, surely the finest mountain train journey in the world, running at over 5000 metres on the section Qinghai to Lhasa, which equally impressed Paul and his female companion. As did the visit to the Sera monastery and its Tangkas once they had started out on their multi-day challenge, and I posit that nobody can travel in that country without it affecting them spiritually, and it certainly did Pritchard who was more than intrigued and then committed to the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism. A word of warning here though, I have travelled that country in the company of educated locals, fluent English speakers and they paint an entirely different picture to such as the organisation ‘Free Tibet’. Whilst acknowledging the uniqueness of their culture, they wished to move on and not be held in aspic by their past.
When I was first recovering, I never imagined that I'd be able to travel again, never mind pedal all the way to the highest mountain on earth. Image Sharyn Jones
The final chapter is about Paul’s return to climb the Totem Pole, 18 years after the accident which nearly cost him his life. A jolly team assembled on the promontory above this and belayed by Steve Monks, he set forth. Steve is English ex-pat and I well remember him in the south west, burning up the classics and pioneering test pieces. But a journey to Oz, and fetching up at Arapiles made for a change in this viewpoint and he has become a local to what in Paul’s book, is in his opinion ‘the best crag in the world’. Steve who had climbed the Totem Pole before led with his usual flair despite the advancement of years, whilst Pritchard prussiked up behind achieving one arm pulls with his one good hand. Two long pitches and the summit was reached and Paul could finally put to rest his Totem Pole ambitions, though he was as we say in the north, completely banjaxed physically.
Mountain Path is like the writer unique. I would recommend it as a read to all who love, and aspire to climb in wild places. But I would also place it on a list by anyone studying the psychology or philosophy of risk. The reading list at the end of this volume illustrates where the author is coming from and is comprehensive. Vertebrate, its publisher is to be thanked for the courage in publishing such an impressive work.
Dennis Gray: 2021